Content shock re-visited, the content marketing myths and realities

content marketing myths

By Mark Schaefer

For the past few years I’ve been a contributor to The Harvard Business Review. I submit my very best article once a quarter or so, an editor reviews it, she suggests some minor modifications, and then it would be published.

Last week, I received a note from my editor that stabbed me in the heart:

Mark, this is an excellent article. A few years ago it certainly would be published. But today, I get so many more submissions that this one doesn’t make the cut. I’m afraid I can’t run this post because the competition is simply much greater now.

Some of this increased competition is coming from big company executives who compose articles crafted by a support team of writers and PR agencies. They realize that producing content is a great way to increase awareness for their agendas and brands. Perhaps they’ve read my book The Content Code, which articulates this very strategy.

I was incredibly disappointed my article didn’t make the cut. It was the most-researched post I had ever delivered to the publication and it took many hours of work.

I’m not giving up, at least for now. But to continue to compete in this crowded content channel, I’ll have to spend even more time to develop even better articles. Or maybe I’ll have to pay for a support team to help me with the research and writing if I want to keep up. In any event, the cost of producing this content is going to go up, up, up.

Maybe I’ll be able to compete, maybe not. If the personal and financial cost of producing articles for the HBR continues to rise and I keep getting rejected, I’ll have to drop out of the competition eventually. It won’t be a sustainable strategy for a little guy like me and the people with deep pockets will prevail.

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. Content Shock is certainly here to stay.

Content Shock in large and small ways

It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since I wrote the original article on this theme, projecting that for some businesses, content marketing would not be a long-term sustainable strategy … for the very reasons we can observe in this little case study.

In any human, natural, or economic system, when there’s too much supply and fixed demand, something has to give. In this case, the supply is content, the demand is consumption. When it gets to the point where it costs too much to compete, you’ve got to find something else to do.

Certainly this is no longer a theory. It’s happening everywhere before our eyes.

In 2011, if you did a great job with your content, audience, and engagement, the average brand could expect 26 percent organic reach on content posted on Facebook. Today that number is below 1 percent. Why? There’s simply too much stuff. Facebook explains that an average person could be exposed to more than 1,500 stories a day on the platform. That’s far too much content so they cut, cut, cut until it is a manageable news stream. Content Shock.

In terms of company content, Facebook is largely pay-to-play today (although there are many exceptions). The cost to compete is naturally going up due to the high amount of content on the channel.

Many reputable voices in our field have weighed in and said “yes, content shock is here” including BuzzSumo, Buffer, TopRank, Rand Fishkin of Moz, Christopher S. Penn of Shift Communications and many more.

Track Maven has reported on this extensively. In a recent post they noted that the output of content per brand increased 35% per channel in one year, but content engagement decreased by 17% in the same timeframe. Engagement dropped across all major social networks, and plummeted most on Pinterest.  They concluded that “For marketing teams, combating this will require more resources and more creativity.”

Analyst and entrepreneur Steve Rayson commented: “Whilst in earlier years it was possible that if you produced good content it would get found and shared, almost by virtue of its quality, this is no longer the case. There is now so much content that even producing great content is not enough. The bar is way higher. Popular sites with great content are also being affected by Content Shock.”

Allaying the fears of shock

In one of my college classes recently I talked about the classic view of content and “inbound” marketing. Theoretically, the most amazing, helpful, and useful content attracts high-potential customer leads that can be funneled into a nurturing program. Then in the last two hours of the class I talk about what’s really happening in the marketing world and how many current trends are killing this traditional inbound model.

One student literally had a panicked look on his face. “Oh great,” he said, “we want to create content and now you tell us it may not work as well any more. What do we do?”

Certainly this nothing to panic about. All of this is quite predictable. Social media marketing, mobile, content … it all works really well. And when something works really well, money is going to be poured into those channels until they burst.

Today, money is being plowed into content marketing at record levels even when companies know it isn’t working because they’re afraid not to.

These cycles of supply and demand are the way the world has always worked. And when it starts to work against you, it’s time to adjust. That’s business, folks.

The other thing to know is that Content Shock is not happening evenly everywhere. There are still lots of open holes out there. I’m currently working with a client in the healthcare field. Their competitors are asleep — hardly any digital presence at all. I think there’s a huge opportunity to create content strategically and aggressively. Essentially, the goal is to create Content Shock for your competitors. Content Shock IS the content marketing strategy.

There is no controversy

Many people referred to my original article as controversial. I didn’t see it that way then, and I don’t see it that way now.

My thinking on this topic was rational, based on simple economics — supply and demand. Economic models aren’t controversial. They’re math. They just are. Economics only becomes controversial when it runs against the prevailing wisdom that more content is the answer, that the best content will always rise to the top, that the key to business profitability is the arc of your story. I suppose that if you buy into those fantasies … well .. then yes, the common sense of Content Shock is controversial.

There is no controversy and there is no problem, quite frankly. Business evolves. The content marketing ideas that worked three years ago may not work now. That should be no surprise to any one, given the rapid rate of change in our business.

The challenge in all of this is to think critically and be aware of the changes in your business. Don’t keep doing something because that’s what you did last year. Consider new strategies focused not just on content but on content ignition — the economic value of content that is not seen and shared is zero. Consider the dramatic changes in content forms, distribution, and evolving roles of the social media platforms.

Content marketing is not just about creating a great blog post or video. It is a war for attention. Keep fighting.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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  • Frederic Gonzalo

    I have been following your blog for quite some time, Mark – well, at least three years since I remember vividly your Content Shock article. In fact, I even wrote an article on my blog about Content Shock as it relates to hospitality and travel vertical, where I focus my efforts and expertise. And I totally agree with your article today, again.
    I recently experienced something similar to your HBR refusal, and I have noticed that my blog did not get as much traffic in 2016 as it did in previous years, even though I published as many quality articles as in the past. Content shock, right there!

    My 2017 resolution, so to speak, is indeed to focus as much, if not more, on igniting the content created. I did not put efforts there last year, but I know this is where the real difference will happen… Thanks for your valuable input, as always. And all the best for 2017, once again 🙂

  • “Content Shock is the content marketing strategy.” That says it all!


  • One of the outcomes of Content Shock is that in a while, some people will stop bothering with content, or they’ll evolve in the way they produce the content. It’s not enough to have a 585 word article with three images, two quote images and one data infographic in it. It just doesn’t make the cut any more. People are experimenting with short form video, there are plenty of $5 apps out there that help you create simple visualisations that are interactive, and people are experimenting with those, trying them out, giving their consumers a new / fresh experience – and the ultimate winner here is going to be just them, the consumers.

    The other outcome is that bad content producers and marketers will fizzle out, forced to take up other roles and jobs – and quite frankly, that’s something the marketing community should be worried about as well. Bad marketers aren’t going to last long, and they’re going to need to find other income streams to help support their livelihood. A lot of attention needs to paid to alternate careers of marketers who don’t make the cut after Content Shock has done what it’s destined to do – only have the best content creators create great content.

    And these “best” content creators aren’t going to be 25. There’ll be 50,000 of them in the world, but the reality is that there are probably millions of marketers out there. It’s a scary thought. Are marketers really willing to accept the final blow of Content Shock?

  • I think that is the right strategy. I haven’t done a formal count but I believe engagement on this blog is down at least 50% in three years and I believe the quality of the content has been consistent or even better. Thanks for keeping the comment section vibrant!

  • Content marketing is not rocket science but I think we overlook that simple truth. Thanks for commenting Bob.

  • As usual, you bring up a number of provocative ideas Avtar. The first is the evolution of new content forms. Yesterday I saw an interactive graphic on the NYT that allowed you to draw your own lines on a graph and it told you how close you were to truth. Now that is fun and immersive content. Why aren’t companies doing more of this?

    I think a bigger drive of job loss will be automated content. Watch for this in 2017.

    And you comment also provoked another idea. I see a lot of people blaming content shock on bad content. Who says? I would contend there is also a lot more amazing content out there too. I’ve never seen a pie chart of good versus bad content and probably never will since that is subjective but I don’t blame this trend on the weakest link!

    Thanks for the gift of this comment my friend!

  • JeffThomasAt30dps

    We have been fortunate to see some amazing results with content marketing efforts for our clients, largely because most of them are in markets that have (for the most part) yet to discover or commit to content marketing. We, of course, are pleased with this, but your article is a great reminder that undoubtedly, their competitors WILL eventually figure it out, and the shock wave is certain to come. The question then will be, wil the content shock strategy be enough to discourage the competition. and even more importantly, perhaps, will our clients understand the importance of the content shock strategy, and keep pouring on the gas, or become “satisfied” with their current standing, and taper off on their content production, just as the competition catches on? We are already sensing the temptation of our clients, who have been enjoying excellent search engine placement and increases in revenues, to reduce their content marketing budgets, as if the job is done. It’s a sobering thought that their success could almost immediately be irradicated when the shock wave hits their market. Another great post, Mark!

  • Mark, I’m thinking content shock might just at as easily be viewed as engagement apathy. No different from a non-profit with a well-meaning but stagnant board causing membership and events to decay. Stoking interest and excitement happens when you have the right leaders talking about interesting things.

  • Anja Skrba

    Content marketing is a war for attention! So true Mark! So true!

  • Part of the game is consistency. Once that domain authority is established it is a valuable commodity and must be protected. Thanks for the comment Jeff.

  • It’s a complicated problem. Apathy may be one cause of lower engagement but there are a lot of factors, including content shock of course. One factor that is overlooked is the impact of mobile. It’s a lot harder to leave a comment on a smart phone compared to sitting at a keyboard. Your comment would suggest that there has been an overall increase in apathy. That would be hard to measure, I guess.

  • Thanks Anja!

  • At every we talking about everywhere (apps, blog, etc), or just blogs?

  • I’m not sure I understand the question but it’s harder to leave comment just because of the screen size and mobile delivery. I can’t quantify that, just a theory. My engagement is going down as mobile use goes up — also could be content shock of course.

  • Hard to believe your engagement is down. You rock this stuff. 🙂

    I’m happy you use Disqus as it simplifies the process of commenting.

  • Re: your HBR note at the top of the post, I would argue it has less to do with “content shock” and more to do with timing/quality of content. It might have been your most researched post to date, but maybe it just didn’t hit the editor right in terms of timing. Also: Who says you HAVE to be in HBR? You’re right–HBR is tougher to get into. But, maybe that’s a good reason to go a different direction? When everyone is doing one thing–it’s usually best to go a different way. Finally, re: the “content shock” concept, I actually think it’s a good thing for marketers/PRs. Flip the thinking–with all this garbage content out there, it’s a prime opportunity for those creating quality content (like you) to stick out. Didn’t happen this time with HBR apparently, but I would argue this whole content shock thing makes it easier for the people who know what they’re doing–not tougher.

  • Well the quote above is from the editor and she has minced words when my quality or timing was off. So I take her assessment at face value.

    Nobody says I have to be in HBR but I want to. It’s prestigious and it connects with my target audience.

    It sounds like you’re still in the camp of “great content rises to the top.” It doesn’t. To get your content to move and be noticed requires a complex cockatail of reputation, promotion, distribution, site authority and maybe some luck. There is plenty of good content, including mine that does not ignite like it used to. I think Content Shock is definitely a benefit for consumers (more choice, better quality) but I don’ know many businesses who are actively seeking more competition. Don’t follow how more competition makes it easier for anybody, talented or not (although I appreciate the kind words). I don’t think we can assume the new competition is garbage any more. Thanks for the comment. Always an honor to have you stop by.

  • Muhammad Saad Khan

    Does it means that the distribution of content is the key? If you are creating amazing content and you cannot distribute it properly or you don’t have the community who can share it or talk about it than you will end up with nothing.

    As being a content marketer myself, I have seen trends changing fast. I visit Product Hunt everyday and see how marketers are taking their different products to their potential consumers. And I see that they are trying to build communities around a common issue by giving them a interesting tool to subscribe to or talk about.

    And then after getting some engagement, they bring out something that focuses on a product.

    Content marketing is here to stay and I personally believe in 3 C’s to get it going where I work. Content, Community, Conversations. Its a cycle that helps us moving forward.

  • well said. I agree.

  • I think Content Shock applies more to meta industries (ie. marketing and advertising) than to traditional industries. There are still many green patches amongst the piles of Web 2.0 garbage. Look forward to seeing you again at SMMW Mark! All the best!

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